THE official body for government statistics has urged Scottish Ministers to explain why part of a report linking student grant cuts to protecting free tuition was deleted.
Ed Humpherson of the UK Statistics Authority informed the SNP Government that a statement was necessary "in the interests of maintaining public confidence” amid claims of political interference.
Daniel Johnson, the Labour MSP who first raised concerns, described the intervention as a "major embarrassment" for the Government.
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Free higher education has been a flagship Government policy since 2007, but the total amount spent on bursaries for low income students has also gone down in recent years.
Critics of the no-fees policy argue that grant budgets were cut as a way of protecting free tuition, which is said to disproportionately benefit individuals from middle class backgrounds.
The Government-funded Student Awards Agency for Scotland recently published a report on higher education and appeared to confirm the view that reforms to the student support system were made to keep free tuition:
It stated: “This meant that the types and value of support students received changed substantially from 2012-13, within the aim of protecting free tuition.”
After Mr Johnson asked whether this section was correct, Higher Education Minister Shirley-Anne Somerville replied:
“No. The recently published Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS) statistical publication contained an inaccurate statement. We apologise for this inaccuracy and will revise the relevant entry in the report.”
As revealed by the Herald, the SAAS took out the line about “protecting free tuition” after the Government contacted the agency.
The UKSA, which can designate whether UK or Scottish Government statistics meet the highest standards, has now intervened in the row.
In a letter to Scottish Government Chief Statistician Roger Halliday, Mr Humpherson wrote: “The Herald newspaper on Thursday 8th December reported that the Student Award Agency for Scotland amended text in a statistics report and raised questions about whether this might have been politically motivated.”
“I understand that you are aware of this issue and in the interests of maintaining public confidence in statistics in Scotland, I suggest that it would be helpful for you to issue a statement on this.
Humpherson, who is the UKSA’s director general for regulation, added: “I would encourage you to comment on the issue that arose, change that was made and to clarify your role as Chief Statistician for the Scottish Government in overseeing this process.
"It might be helpful for you also to review compliance with the Code of Practice for Official Statistics of the statistics report in question; we noticed in exploring this issue that there is no named statistician which is a requirement designed to enhance the trustworthiness of statistics publications."
Mr Johnson said: "This is a major embarrassment for the SNP government, and they should produce a statement explaining what happened as a matter of urgency.
“The SAAS report said what we all know to be the case: grants have been replaced by loans for Scotland’s poorest students, and this was used to pay for the free tuition fee policy.
“SNP ministers must explain to Parliament why this admission has been removed from the report."
Tory MSP Liz Smith said: “At a time when we need to be doing everything we can to close the attainment gap, the SNP have chosen to slash bursary support for those who need it most.
"That money has instead been used to help pay for free tuition - a policy that has been proven to do nothing to help social mobility.
"There is no doubt that they need to clarify why they thought it was appropriate to try to cover this up, rather than facing up to the consequences of their decisions."
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The SAAS report in question contained an inaccurate statement on government policy and no statistical information was changed. It is important that only accurate information is in the public domain, which is why Scottish Government officials asked SAAS to rectify matters.
“The Scottish Government Chief Statistician is responsible for the content and timing of all official statistics in Scotland. He had a responsibility for the quality, trustworthiness and impact of our official statistics and supported the decision to revise the student support publication. He will respond to the Office for Statistical Regulation in due course.”